Szuhaj: Social Media: A Performance

In pursuit of “likes,” we must not forget what makes us human.

by Ben Szuhaj | 9/30/16 12:30am

 In his recent “Make Happy” tour, comedy prodigy Bo Burnham, whose inventive songs often provide commentary on social issues, took a moment to seriously address the audience. Burnham argued, with an impressive degree of awareness and charm, that we are all constantly performing. Social media, he asserted before transitioning back into the show, is the market’s solution to the underlying need we all feel to preform for an audience.

It’s a compelling argument, especially when you consider that Facebook alone hosts 4 percent of all the photos ever taken. The desire to capture moments is no longer the only motivation to take photos. Now we must display those moments — our best moments — for all to see, for everyone else to “remember.” We lay in bed at night and count the likes our posts have garnered. We read posts about issues we don’t know much about, shared by people who may or may not know slightly more than us. We scroll through our newsfeed and see beautiful, Instagram-filtered images of people doing cool, exciting things. Everyone is constantly performing for everyone else: “Look at me! Look at this cool place I visited! Look at this video I like!” And we respond with likes. “Likes” are the applause. They excite and commend, and then they pitter off. They disappear. So we post again, in search of applause, like a performer. Like Burnham.

That is not to say social media is bad. I, for one, am very active on social media, and I do not suggest quitting. Social media can be a powerful tool for spreading ideas, mobilizing action and connecting with distant friends and relatives. Even the scenario I just described is not without its redeeming qualities. Performing for an audience can help you develop a sense of self. Social media can, if used properly, boost your self-esteem. Likes, frivolous as they may appear, can be a powerful signaling tool for social acceptance. Applause, I imagine, would be a metric equally as ludicrous to you if you grew up in a society where applause did not exist. I am not here to critique social media for making us self-indulgent zombies trapped inside electronic echo-chambers with a few thousand of our closest friends. I am here to argue that the biggest downfall of social media — representative of our cultural in general — is that it paints an unrealistically optimistic portrait of life.

Typically, millennials are thought of as arrogant, self-absorbed social media enthusiasts, so it may be hard to imagine them feeling bad about themselves. How could they, when they’ve so clearly had a fantastic time vacationing in the Bahamas? But that’s just it. What you see are the best moments, which have been carefully crafted for an audience. Perhaps that is why we are so fascinated when celebrities go on Twitter rants, á la Kanye West, or have a public meltdown, á la Charlie Sheen. These rants feel unscripted. Even if they are carefully calculated, they appear spontaneous. They feel genuine, so we like them.

In general, users construct social media personas, purposefully curating images and text for an audience. Most often, users aim to garner likes by stunning, seducing, provoking laughter and so on. That, alone, is harmless. But, we forget that other people have off-days. They mess up. They wake up tired in the morning. They are not always visiting fantastic places.

We internalize these polished lives. Despite the fact that we could never be so perfect, we mustn’t feel bad for ourselves. One of the biggest emotional absences in modern American culture is that of self-pity. We are simply not allowed to feel sorry for ourselves. It’s bad for productivity. If we do feel bad, we self-medicate. We immerse ourselves in the pretty lives of celebrities. We either worship those higher than us on the social ladder or thumb our noses at those further down.

This dynamic is inherently devoid of empathy. Empathy arises when we experience the emotions of others. It does not result from celebrity worship. Nor does it truly result when we scroll past the image of a bloodied Syrian child embedded in a newsfeed dominated by kitten videos and selfies. That image, like the articles decrying Donald Trump or tweets about Crooked Hillary, is information to be consumed. It says, “there is a war going on in Syria. You should care.” And yet we continue to scroll. Maybe we give it a like in passing.

In order to truly care, we must learn to pity ourselves, so that we can pity others. In order to do that, we need more of what social media can never give us: a recognition that moments of quiet, prosaic non-goodness, like being hungry in a class before lunch, or waking up with a cold, or feeling bad about yourself because of the way your body looks — those are things that many people have and will experience. I have found that recognition in books. Some people find it in music, video or dance. Whatever the mechanism, we must remain cognizant that social media will never be able to give us that recognition. We must remain aware of the grand act. We must not lose our humanity.